Beyond the Nile

The Influence of Egypt and Nubia in Sub-Saharan Africa

By: John Alexander

Originally Published in 1993

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A number of developments in human affairs seem to have taken place earlier in the Nile Valley—especially in Egypt—than in other parts of Africa. The four most important of these are the development of agriculture; the formation, based on agriculture, of civilized states; the development of metallurgy (copper, gold, silver, bronze, and iron); and conversion to the two great monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, which brought with them distinctive, and to Africa, alien cultural complexes. I propose here to elaborate on these events and ask what role, whether intended or not, Egypt and Nubia played in their occurences outside of the Nile Valley. The other articles in this issue consider the frequently rivalrous relationship of Egypt and Nubia to one another; this one considers their relationship to the rest of Africa.

The Development of Agriculture

The wheat, barley, sheep, and goats on which Egyptian agriculture was based did not originate in Egypt (Fig. 3). The wild ancestors of these domestic species are unknown in Africa. They are, howev­er, common in western Asia where this agricultural complex originated more than two millennia earlier. In central and southern Egypt, these imported crops and animals were probably adopted by the existing inhabitants rather than brought in by immigrant farmers. This supposition is based on evidence that the first farmers in these areas shared traits with African groups elsewhere, traits that include, for example, certain characteris­tics of their pottery and stone tools, and particular cultural practices, such as the use of penis-sheaths.

The acceptance of a farming way of life may well have been part of a ‘moving frontier’ in the Nile Valley in which pio­neer farmers from the north worked their way southwards until their subtropi­cal plant food complex (but not their ani­mals) reached its natural climatic boundary in Nubia, some way north of Khartoum. Once this boundary was reached, sometime in the 4th millennium B.C., it must have been the “end of the frontier” for this plant complex; further expansion would not have been possible without a change in crops. In the whole of sub-Saharan Africa only relatively small, usually highland areas like the Ethiopian or Kenya Highlands or Cape Province in the Republic of South Africa are suitable for growing wheat and bar­ley.

For agriculture to flourish on the saheb and savannas of Nubia, a complete­ly different plant complex was required, one based on tropical millets (especially sorghum and pearl millet, or Penniseturn glaucum; Fig. 1). The wild ancestors of these millets have been found from east­ern Africa (Ethiopia) to western Africa (Mauritania), and they were certainly being harvested and ground into flour by 6000 B.C. in the Khartoum area. The farmers near Khartoum, at sites like that at Kadero, had cultural connections mainly with groups to the west. Their pottery in particular was similar to that used by cattle herders in the Sahara mas­sifs in and after the 7th millennium B.C. While there was certainly some contact with the north, South Nubian agriculture does not seem to have been derived from or due only to stimulus from Egypt, but is more likely to have come from the west (Fig. 2).

South of Nubia, evidence from before the 2nd millennium B.C. is still nonexis­tent, so it cannot be demonstrated that a `moving frontier’ carried millet cultiva­tion through the savannas to the south.

Fieldwork in Kenya and Tanzania in recent years has shown, however, that cattle-herding was present there by the 3rd millennium and sorghum cultivation by the 2nd millennium B.C. While these are regarded as immigrant economies from the north, a thesis supported by lin­guistic evidence, there seems no reason to link them specifically with Nubia but rather with the wider neolithic cultures of the savannas.

In the savannas of West Africa, especially in the inland delta of the upper Niger in Mali, we find a quite separate agricultural complex based on locally domesticated African rice and tropical millets. It is not yet clear whether this complex was a result of stimulus diffu­sion from the north. Even if it was, there would be no reason to link it with Nubia or Egypt.

In the tropical forests of West Africa still another agriculture, based on yams and forest products, developed, which suggests an independent discovery of domestication. This root and tree crop complex was very different in both its plants and its farming methods from the seed-agriculture of the savannas to the north.

Figures 9a and 9b locate the likely origins of the main plant and animal domesticates discussed above.

State Formation

The second great change that hap­pened first in Egypt was the formation of a state and the development of civiliza­tion around 3000 B.C. (For an overview of state formation in the Nile Valley, see Figure 4. See also O’Connor’s article, this issue, for a discussion of what consti­tutes a state.) Yet in the period when

Egyptian civilization was the only one in Africa, its influence was very limited out­side Nubia (Fig. 5). The idea that social systems which included ‘Divine King­ship’ (rulers who were gods as well as kings) spread from pharaonic Egypt to other parts of Africa seems untenable.

The indigenous nature of the unified pharaonic state, although it was influ­enced by western Asia, is not in doubt nor is its continued independence and relative uniformity until circa 600 B.C. Even after that, under a succession of foreign conquerors, pharaonic Egypt retained much of its individuality into the 3rd century A.D. It might be expected to have had immense influence on neigh­boring regions—whether by conquest, trade or migration. In terms of general theory a “core-periphery model” would seem appropriate. In this model, new states form on the frontiers of a devel­oped state. Further afield, trading/raid­ing influences occur.

To the west of Egypt there is no evi­dence of these developments taking place. Even in Cyrenaica there is little to suggest Egyptian influence before the 1st millennium B.C. And while extensive raiding of pastoral peoples in the border regions of Libya took place in the 2nd millennium, no permanent control beyond the Selima and Dakhla oases (to the east of the Libyan border) seems to have been attempted. Some penetration of Egyptian artistic ideas into the central Sahara is indicated by rock engravings and paintings, notably representations of two-wheeled horse-drawn carts (Fig. 7a, b), but no evidence of urban or sophisti­cated state formation has been found. Without the camel, introduced sometime after 1000 B.C. from west Asia, the trans-Saharan routes must have been very diffi­cult and dangerous to traverse, and no substantial trade into Egypt from the west has been proved or even suggested (Fig. 6).

To the southeast, Egypt was certainly in contact with parts of the African Red Sea coast and beyond to the Horn of Africa in the 2nd as in the 1st millennium B.C. Yet coastal surveys undertaken in Somalia and Kenya have so far failed to find there, or further south on the Tan­zanian coast, any evidence which might be attributed to stimulus diffusion. Nei­ther indigenous state formation nor incipient urban communities have been recognized before the 1st millennium A.D., when Arabian Islamic communities traded with and settled on the coast.

In contrast, pharaonic influence cer­tainly occurred directly to the south, along the Nile through Nubia. Here the core-periphery model is appropriate. Local state-formation took place in the mid 3rd millennium B.C. in the Kerma region, just outside the Egyptian frontier, and in the late 2nd millennium just out­side a new and more southerly frontier at Napata, where the Nubian state was known as Kush (Fig. 8). These states had absorbed many contemporary Egyptian cultural traits, and when Kush conquered Egypt in the 8th century B.C., the cultur­al pattern established as far south as the Fifth and Sixth Cataracts was heavily influenced by Egypt. Had substantial Egyptian influence reached south of the Sixth Cataract into the Khartoum region, its potential for affecting development in the sahel and savannas to the west and south would have been greatly enhanced. There is no evidence, however, that this happened.

Meriotic Empire

From 600 B.C. onwards Nubia (now part of the Meroitic Empire) may cer­tainly be considered a rival to Egypt. The rivalry was restricted to the Nile Valley, however, especially the region between the First and Sixth Cataracts. There is no evidence that it was continued anywhere else in Africa. As in the previous period there is no reason to suggest that the concept of Sudanic civilization or divine kingship spread into the rest of Africa from the Nile Valley.

Although Nubia was thoroughly imbued with and tenacious of Egyptian pharaonic culture, it retained and devel­oped many non-Egyptian traits. The state formed at Napata became the Meroitic Empire in the 1st millennium B.C. With its urban core in the `Island of Meroe,’ at a point where three major valleys (the Atbara, the Nile, and the Wadi Howar) lead into sub-Saharan Africa, this sophis­ticated civilization was well placed for influencing regions to its south, east, and west.

Incipient state-formation and even urbanism might therefore be predicted in the Khartoum region or even in Dar­fur to the west and the Gash Delta in the east. One might also have expected the Empire, familiar as its elite was with horses as well as iron, to have raised cav­alry armies which could have controlled a savanna empire rivaling the later ones of Mali or Songhai in the western savannas. But in spite of the fieldwork of Fattovich in the Atbara valley, Karim Saar, Marks and Abbas Mohammed Ali in the Butane, Shinnied, Chiftick and Weisby around Khartoum, and Ziggert and Ibrahim Musa in Darfur, no more than slight traces of Meroitic influence have been found. No sites at all with substantial remains or evidence of state-formation have been located.

One of the last Egyptian native rulers. Necho II (610-595 B.C.), reportedly financed an exploration of the African coast by Phoenicians, who sailed from the Red Sea around the continent, but nc trace of this expedition has been found and it does not seem to have been repeated. Trade southeastwards from the Egyptian Red Sea coast was certainly considerable, especially after 330 B.C.. but no trace of it has yet been confirmed in Africa south of the entrance to them Red Sea, and there is no evidence of local state formation or urban develop­ments there. The rise of Alum, the one new state known in this period in north­east Africa, owed much to southern Ara­bia and nothing to Meroe as far as can be seen.

From 600 B.C. until A.D. 1954 Egypt was controlled and exploited by foreign invaders, especially Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Ottoman Turks, whose inter­ests and ambitions lay to the north and east. The Meroilic Empire, however, was not conquered by these foreign invaders, and Greek and Roman influence on areas beyond Nubia seems to have been non­existent. There is literary evidence of one 1st century A.D. Roman exploratory expedition reaching the Sudd (the swamps of the southern Sudan) with Meroitic help, but no archaeological evi­dence of the expedition has been found and its report to Rome seems to have been that the area lacked resources and was not worth conquering. No trace of Roman/Egyptian influence has been found south of the Meroitic Empire.

Egypt was only one among several African provinces controlled by the Roman State. It was from the other provinces that Roman citizens and even armies penetrated the Sahara along routes newly opened up by the camel (see Fig. 6). That penetration originated from coastal settlements from Libya to Morocco that had been established earli­er by the Greeks and Phoenicians State formation among the indigenous populations in Tunisia-Algeria took place peripherally to Phoenician Carthage by the 3rd to 2nd centuries B.C. Some movement towards state formation also occurred nearer Egypt among the Gara­mantes, but under Greek influence in Libya. These incipient and newly formed states, like later groupings which emerged in the early centuries A.D. fur­ther inland, owed nothing to Egypt or Nubia.

The Later Develop­ment of States

In pan-African terms, the most impor­tant event in the Middle Nile Valley from A.D. 300 to 1350 was the establishment, some time before 640, of an indepen­dent, apparently well organized king­dom in the region of Khartoum. This kingdom, called Alodia, was the most southerly of the successor states to the Meroitic Empire and thus the best placed of any Nile Valley polity to influ­ence sub-Saharan Africa. Very little is known about Alodia archaeologically before the 6th century A.D., but its loca­tion at the junction of the Blue and White Niles and on the southern edge of the Sahara gave it access to a vast area of sahel and savanna. Alodia developed on the southern periphery of the Meroitic state, either outside the borders or as a border province. Its burial customs are similar to those of Nobatia, the most northerly successor to the Meroitic state in the 5th and 6th centuries in the First to Second Cataract region. Both horses and camels (Fig. 10) were in use and a savanna empire like that of Mali might be expected. The core settlement of Alodin has not yet been located nor its arti­factual identity established so its areas of control and influence cannot be defined. It can be said, however, that after consid­erable archaeological surveying in Dar­fur, few artifacts of Nile Valley type have been recovered and no evidence of the development of incipient states, although sophisticated settlements have been found. No state formation has any been found in the south, the White Nile Val­ley, for this period. The possibilities of the spread of metallurgy by stimulus dif­fusion from Meroc or Alodia will be con­sidered separately below.

From the Egyptian oases the desert routes to the south and west were Along and difficult; connections between West Africa and the Maghreb (northwestern Africa) were much closer. A core-periph­ery tie across the Sahara, connecting Morocco-Algeria-Tunisia to the savannas of the south, is visible in the rise to state­hood of Ghana (Old Ghana in Mali), which had taken place by the 9th centu­ry. Old Ghana lay at the southern termi­nus of the trans-Saharan caravan routes used to transport gold northwards. There is no reason to think that the Ghanaian state owed its development to either Nubia or Egypt.

The Development of Metallurgy

The Nile Valley states possessed a knowledge of copper, gold, and silver metallurgy from as early as 3000 B.C., over 2,000 years before it is found else­where in Africa. There was apparently no significant spread of copper/bronze tech­nology from Egypt or Nubia in the 3rd or 2nd millennia B.C. Not until the 1st mil­lennium B.C. does metal seem to be important south of the Sahara (Fig. 13). Where evidence of copper working has been found (tools and weapons), in Mau­ritania to the west or Zimbabwe/Zambia to the south, it dates to the 1st millenni­um B.C. or A.D., and is contemporary with iron working. In the forested areas of southern Africa, copper, bronze, and gold working seem to develop even later than this.

Although iron was introduced to Egypt from Anatolia by the 13th century B.C., except for weapons and religious rituals it does not seem to have been widely used until hundreds of years later, well into the 1st millennium B.C. It was probably only under the Greeks and Romans from the 3rd century B.C. on that iron was in common everyday use in Egypt.

In Nubia a very different state of affairs existed. Shinnie (1985) and Tyle­cote (1982) have shown that the immense slag heaps at Meroe date to at least the 6th century B.C. It seems unlikely that this ironworking was an independent discovery. Although Nubia had had a long tradition of nonferrous metal-working, it was also in close touch with Egypt where iron was already long known if not widely used. Industrial pro­duction continued at Meroe into the 1st century A.D. (Fig. 11a, b) so that for cen­turies iron artifacts were available in the Middle Nile Valley, and a diffusion of technology from Nubia to other parts of Africa, even without evidence of trade or conquest, is possible.

In east Africa the earliest iron mental-  lurgy is now dated to 400-300 B.C. and is inked with negroid Bantu-speaking ;orghum/cattle farmers through the great Lakes area (Lakes Victoria, Tan­;anyika, Malawi) towards the coasts and :he south. There is no evidence at present of how these farmers, linked linguis­tically with those of central Nigeria, came by their knowledge of iron metallurgy. The technology could have been introduced in one of three ways: by stimulus diffusion from the Kenyan coasts (where it may have been brought by sea trade); overland from the Meroitic Empire; or from an independent discovery of iron metallurgy in the west African bush savannas/forests.

In west Africa iron metallurgy was known on the forest margins in Nigeria by the mid 1st millennium B.C. At Taruga and other sites far from any trace of northern or northeastern influence it seems well understood by around 500 B.C. While the possibility of stimulus dif­fusion from the Nile Valley or the Maghreb cannot be ruled out, there is nothing to make us favor it. An indepen­dent discovery of iron technology among Bantu-speaking peoples at some time before 500 B.C. is equally likely.

The Spread of Christianity and Islam 

The last phase of possible Nubian/ Egyptian rivalry in Africa (before the political rivalry of the last 200 years) began in the first millennium A.D., when two new monotheistic religions—Chris­tianity and Islam—reached the Nile Val­ ley after A.D. 642. For some 800 years Egypt was dominated by Muslims, and Nubia by Christians. Attempts to spread their respective religions among neigh­boring pagans might be expected on political as well as religious grounds. Yet in this period of potentially intense rival­ry, neither played much part in the reli­gious conversions of sub-Saharan Africa.

Christianity, increasingly accepted in Egypt by A.D. 300 and in Axum in Ethiopia soon afterwards, was gaining a foothold in strongly pagan Nubia by the 5th century (Fig. 12). All three Meroitic successor states were formally converted by Imperial Roman missionary expedi­tions in the mid 6th century. Since the Nubian states of Makouria and Alodia remained independent and Christian into the 14th century (while Egypt fell to the Muslims in the 7th century), it might be expected that political necessity, as well as religious concern, would have led Nubian kings to encourage missionary efforts east, south, and west. Alodia, with its settlement core south of Khartoum and its capital at Soba, might be thought particularly well placed to further the spread of Christianity. It also might be expected that given their distinctive char­acter, Christian-Nubian remains would be archaeologically visible. In spite of much fieldwork, however, the most dis­tant churches are only about 150 kms to the south and west of Soba. Recent work by Ibrahim Musa in Darfur has located few certainly Christian remains or Nile Valley artifacts of the Christian period, although he has sites with the appropri­ate radiocarbon dates. The Christian church in Egypt continued to support the churches in Nubia and Abyssinia, but there is no evidence of it supporting mis­sionary work further afield in Africa. The failure of Christianity to be adopted by camel-keeping pastoralists is particularly noteworthy.

Islam was increasingly accepted along the north African coast between A.D. 642 and 800, both by coastal peoples and by pastoralists (Fig. 14). From the 11th century a combination of influence and conquest carried Islam to the edges of the tropical forests and led to the forma­tion of great savanna empires reaching as far east as Darfur. There is no evidence that Nile Valley Muslims played an important role in these developments, although contact existed through the desert, and routes for the pilgrims to Mecca went through Egypt and Nubia. A further stage in the spread of Islam came through the collapse of the Nubian Christian kingdoms in the 14th century.

The most southerly core-and-periph­ery pattern in the Nile Valley seems visi­ble in the setting up of a Muslim (Fung) sultanate on the southern frontier of Alodia at Sennar on the Blue Nile. This state, although well into the savannas, seems to have made little impression on its pagan neighbors to the south and played no part in the spread of Islam to the Kenyan and Tanzanian coasts. As with Christianity, Islam was, and is, hos­tile to the concept of divine kingship, and the existence of that social system in other parts of African cannot be due to Nubian or Egyptian influence at this time.

General Conclusions

In the four important areas of human development in which Nile Valley influ­ence in Africa might be expected to be detected by archaeological means (agri­culture, state formation, metallurgy, and monotheistic religion), our present knowledge indicates little trace of either Egyptian or Nubian influence. Egyptian wheat/barley farming was unexportable to the tropics; Nubia’s cattle farming and sorghum/millet agriculture had links and perhaps an origin further west in the savannas. State formation and urbaniza­tion in Nubia can be traced on the periphery off the Egyptian state in the 2nd and 1st millennium B.C., developed further south in the Khartoum region in the 1st millennium A.D., and further south still near Sennar in the 2nd millen­nium A.D. State formation cannot be traced on the western periphery of Egypt nor on the western peripheries of Nubia. The same restriction seems true of the monotheistic religions of Christianity and Islam. While they were accepted succes­ sively in Egypt and Nubia, they were not carried far beyond the Nile Basin, and the conversion of north, west, and east Africa was carried out by others. Only with metallurgy is there a possible spread by stimulus diffusion from the Meroitic Empire, but this is only one of three the­oretical explanations and the indepen­dent discovery of iron metallurgy in west Africa is equally possible.

It should, finally, be emphasized that there are very few areas of Africa now where archaeological survey has not been carried out and that, although much new evidence will of course be found, the exis­tence of undiscovered civilizations is highly unlikely. If this is true, then any residual feeling that Egypt or Nubia must have been responsible for developments in sub-Saharan Africa will have to be abandoned and Bantu-speaking peoples accepted as innovators in their own right.

Cite This Article

Alexander, John. "Beyond the Nile." Expedition Magazine 35, no. 2 (July, 1993): -. Accessed February 22, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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